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Keys and Locks 



in the Collection of the 
Cooper-Hewitt Museum 



The Smithsonian Institution's 
National Museum of Design 













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Keys and Locks 



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in the Collecrion of the 
Cooper-Hewitt Museum 




The Smithsonian Institution's 
National Museum of Design 



Cover 

padlock 
German 
17th century 
steel, 17 cm 
1952. 161. 165a 



Inside cover 

designs for keys 

Italian 

19th century 

pen and brown ink with 

gray and brown washes 

1938.88.5514, 5503, 

55i 1. 5497. 55°8, 5494. 549 2 . 

5507, 5488, 5505, 5500, 5489, 
5509, 5486, 5495, 5502 



Donors 

Gift of Harriet Crocker Alexander: 16, 17, 18, 
19, 20, 21, 28, 30, 32, 33, 40, 44 
Gift of Mrs. EH. Bosworth: 27, 52, 53, 54 
Gift of the Council for the Museum: 1, 4, 13, 

15.41, 42 

Gift of Willam H. Faulhaber: 50, 51 
Friends of the Museum Fund : inside cover 
Gift of Charles W. Gould: 22, 24, 25 
Gift of Sarah Cooper Hewitt: 38, 43 
Gift of the C. Helme and Alice B. 
Strater Collection: 23 
Gift of Leo Wallerstein : 3 
Anonymous acquisition : 9, 56 
Anonymous gift: cover, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 
10, 11, 12, 14, 26, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39. 
45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 57, 58 



©1987 by the Smithsonian Institution 

All rights reserved 

Library of Congress Catalog No. 87-070639 

ISBN 0-910503-52-4 

Photographs by Scott Hyde 
Design by Jeana Aquadro 
Typography by Typogram 
Printing by Rembrandt Press, Inc. 



Foreword 



i chamberlain's key 
European 

probably 18th century 
gilt bronze, 9 cm 
1910.30.44 




It is somewhat ironic that with the 
development of human civilization, 
the need for protection and privacy 
has become more critical. For 
millennia, our strongest and most 
common defense against thieves 
and intruders has been a lock and 
a matching key. Together the 
two make a powerful combination, 
although so far not an invincible 
one, and the struggle to design the 
"unpickable" or perfect lock 
continues. 

The Cooper-Hewitt's collection of 
keys and locks was begun shortly 
after the founding of the Museum in 
1897. It offers a wide range of 
designs that document the history of 
locks and keys from ancient times to 
the present. From the most ornately 
wrought lock meant to grace a finely 
crafted chest to the latest electronic 
locking systems, locks and keys in 
their design and ornamentation 
mirror the predominant style ot the 
time in which they were made. They 
also stand as undeniable testimony to 
the ingenuity of the locksmith and 
the skill of the craftsman. 



Many of the collections within the 
Cooper-Hewitt represent areas of 
design that are rarely thought about 
by any but a handful of designers 
and scholars. Over the years, the 
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has 
made it possible for the Museum to 
conduct research on some of these 
more unusual collections and to 
present them to the public. Keys and 
locks comprise one such collection , 
and once again we wish to thank the 
Mellon Foundation for its generosity 
in supporting this special project. 

Lisa Taylor 
Director 



2 chamberlain's key 
European 

probably 18th century 
steel, 13.5 cm 
1952. 161.26 



Security and safety of person and 
property are needs that are shared 
around the world, and for thousands 
of years keys and locks have helped 
to satisfy these needs. Because locks 
and other security devices preserve 
and protect valuables that may range 
from small jewelry and coins to 
family homes and warehouses, keys 
are by nature carefully guarded 
items, the use of which is generally 
restricted to responsible individuals. 
Edgar Frank, an author on the 
history of French metalwork, 
succinctly describes the function of 
the lock and key as a means of 
distinguishing the difference 
between "mine" and "thine." 

In keeping with their function of 
protecting both individual and com- 
munal property, keys have become 
an important symbol of power and 
status. The temporal power vested in 
the key is a symbolic reference to 



power itself The goddess Athena 
carried the keys to her namesake city 
of Athens as a visual symbol of her 
importance to the community - a 
tradition that survives today in the 
presentation of the "keys to the city" 
to distinguished individuals. Biblical 
references to keys and locks also 
confirm their practical and symbolic 
use: "And the key to the house of 
David will I lay upon his shoulder; 
so he shall open, and none shall shut; 
and he shall shut, and none shall 
open" (Isaiah 22:22). The key be- 
came the attribute of St. Peter, upon 
whom the Christian church was 
founded, and the papal coat of arms 
is often displayed above a pair of 
crossed keys. From Shakespeare to 
Sigmund Freud, the key has 
remained a powerful visual symbol. 




3 Albrecht Diirer 
(1471-1528) 
Germany 
Angel with the Key 
to the Bottomless Pit 
1498 

woodcut 
1950.30.9 





Numerous people have speculated 
on the origins of keys and locks. The 
earliest security devices may have 
included a rather simple system of 
ropes that were tied from the inside 
of a building or chamber to protect a 
door or entryway. It is generally 
believed that keys and locks 
originated in the Middle East and 
may have been developed to protect 
valuable community property such 
as grain. The earliest locks and keys 
were carved of wood and were most 
probably individually crafted by a 
carpenter who specialized in this 
work. We know from pictorial and 
literary records that granary doors 
were commonly fitted with heavy 
wooden bolts that could only be 
thrown by an equally large and 
heavy wooden key. These early keys 
utilized single or multiple prongs 
that tit under a series of movable 
pins located inside the fixed lock; 
when these pins were lifted by 
inserting a key with matching 
prongs, the bolt on the lock could be 
thrown and the door opened. 

Wood is sturdy, but it is also 
susceptible to moisture and wear, so 
nearly all of these early locks 
and keys have fallen victim to decay 
and deterioration. Most keys 



Le Pautrc cxcudltCutn PrLud-Rcntj 



i Jean Le Pautre 
designs for keys 
from Litre dc Serrurerie 
(Paris: c. 1675) 
engraving and etching 
1921.6.343(8) 



chest lock and key 

Spanish 

17th century 

iron, 43.5 cm (lock) 

9.8 cm (key) 

1952. 161. 136a, b,c 




fabricated in the last two thousand 
years have been made of metal. The 
Romans often used bronze for their 
keys, which is durable and has 
assured the survival of numerous 
examples from the classical period 
on. It was the introduction of iron 
into the locksmiths' repertoire of 
materials, however, that greatly 
changed the history of keys; strong 
and malleable, iron proved an ideal 
material for locks and keys and 
declined in popularity only with the 
introduction of steel. Base metals are 
not, of course, the only materials of 
which keys have been made. For 
some particularly important keys, 



6 probably French 
18th century 
steel, 8.5 cm 
1952. 161.24 



7 German 
r8th century 
steel, 14.2 cm 
1952. 161. 128 



8 probably German 
17th century 
iron, 17.5 cm 
1952. 161.66 



9 probably English 
i8th-i9th century 
steel, 10.2 cm 



10 French 

18th century 
steel, 1 1. 2 cm 
1952. 161.235 



11 German or French 
17th- 18th century 
steel, 13.6 cm 
1952. 161.44 







silver and gold have been used, and a 
few, such as papal keys, were even 
set with precious or semi-precious 
stones. In the nineteenth century, 
mass production of keys brought 
other metals, such as brass, into 
prominence, and in our own century, 
aluminum and special alloys have 
been most frequently used. Within 
the last few decades, plastics and 
electronic devices have come to play 
roles in the evolution of key design. 

Until the nineteenth and twentieth 
centuries, key design was based 
on principles that developed in the 
ancient world. Most keys consist 



of three basic elements: the bow, 
the bit, and the shaft. The bow is 
the "handle" of the key and is 
usually elliptical or round to permit 
easy grasping. The bit is the part 
of the key that is inserted into the 
lock and serves as the point of 
contact between the key and the 
locking mechanism. Most often, the 
bit trees the lock when the key is 
turned through a series of barriers, 
thus permitting the bolt to be 
withdrawn. The shaft connects the 
bow and the bit. There are many 





lock 

probably German 
17th century 
iron, 27.5 cm 
1952. 161. 141b 




variations on this basic construction, 
and keymakers have found unlimited 
ways to vary and ornament each of 
these elements. Although keys 
clearly reflect the history of styles 
and fashions, these three elements 
have remained identifiable in Roman, 
medieval, and even in modern keys. 

Not surprisingly, since locks and 
keys were made en suite, changes in 
the design of keys have followed 
closely upon changes in lock design. 
Locks tend to fall into basic 
categories according to the design of 
their internal locking mechanisms. 
The most common of these depends 
on a system of tumblers that must be 
pushed away from the lock to permit 
the bolt to be moved. The simple, 
multi-pronged wooden lock of the 
ancient world serves as an archetype 
of the principle still in use in certain 
locks. Later sophistications in lock 



13 Mathurinjousse 

designs for escutcheons 

and keys 

from La Fidele Ouvertute 

de Vartde Serrurier 

(Paris: 1627) 

engraving and etching 

1921.6.324(3) 



design included the introduction of 
complicated "wards," or metal teeth, 
and other barriers that permitted 
only a key with matching cuts in the 
bit to penetrate and turn the lock. In 
the nineteenth century, designers 
attempting to provide perfect 
security filed a plethora of patent 
applications for new key designs that 
greatly expanded the technology of 
lockmaking. In our own century, 
most ordinary keys and locks have 
returned to an ancient locking 



principle that utilizes tumblers 
(analogous to the movable pin) that 
are raised as the key enters the lock. 
Commonly used locks today range 
from small padlocks for luggage and 
briefcases to combination locks and 
virtually unpickable electronic 
devices that respond to a plastic 
'credit card" substituted for the 
traditional key. 




14 probably German 
I7th-i8th century 
steel, 13.5 cm 
1952. 161. 115 



15 Spanish 
17th century 
signed Jean Dutartre 
steel, 22.5 cm 
1910. 30. 49 




The history of locks and keys is 
inseparable from the history of the 
art and craft of the blacksmith and 
locksmith. By the medieval period, 
craftsmen frequently organized 
themselves into brotherhoods or 
guilds according to their trades. This 
served to protect their economic 
interests, as well as to maintain the 
standards of design and execution 
that the craft depended upon for its 
financial survival. The guilds created 
a system of instruction for 
apprentices through which aspiring 
artisans received training in the 
workshops of qualified masters. By 
the late fourteenth century, France's 
system of apprenticeship in the field 
of iron working had been codified 
and required an apprentice to 
complete and submit for approval a 
"masterpiece" in documentation 
of his workmanship before he could 
be accredited as a qualified master. 
The supervision and training 
provided by such guild systems 
insured that the standards of the craft 
could be maintained; at the same 
time, it introduced a certain 
conservatism in the craft that is 
reflected in the gradual change in 
lock and key ornamentation. 



Until the adoption of cold- worked 
hammered and chiseled metal in 
the seventeenth century, most locks 
and keys were laboriously 
hammered out on the anvil while 
the metal was red-hot. The art of 
the blacksmith began to lose its 
importance with the introduction of 
cold-metal techniques in which solid 
pieces of metal were sculpted with 
chisel and file to create highly 
sophisticated designs. Blacksmiths 
served as an important source of 
keys for most people until keys 
began to be mass-produced in the 
nineteenth century. 



Innovative design was a hallmark of 
Roman keymakers and locksmiths. 
Archeological excavations at Roman 
sites throughout Europe have 
unearthed an astonishing variety of 
designs, including ring keys and 
folding keys that probably unlocked 
small caskets containing personal 





13 



i6 


Roman 




bronze, 11. 5 cm 




1909.2.270 


17 


Roman 




bronze, 5.5 cm 




1909.2.274 


18 


Roman 




bronze, 8.5 cm 




1909.2.278 


19 


Celtic 




iron, 9 cm 




1910. i.8 


20 


Celtic 




iron, 16 cm 




1910. 1.7 


21 


Celtic 




bronze, 6.2 cm 




1901 .1.9 



valuables. The Roman keys in the 
Cooper-Hewitt's collection are 
typically small enough to have been 
carried on the person. A notable 
variety of types were common in 
Roman key designs. Some bits 
include refinements such as small 
teeth that were specifically designed 
to match the cuttings on a lock; 
some were made without teeth 
and opened the lock with a simple 
turn. Other variations include bits 
with additional cut-out sections in 
combination with elongated teeth, 
both of which were designed to 
match the configuration of holes cut 
into the locking mechanism. Some 
keys from Roman settlements 
closely resemble those made by the 
Celts, whom the Romans 
conquered; many of these are 
anchor-shaped, with an elongated 
shaft that offers a convenient area 
for ornamentation. The bows of 
others were created in the form of an 
open circle to permit the key to be 
hung on a strap or chain or to be 
worn on the finger, with shaft and 
bit held in the palm of the hand. 



Many Roman keys were made of 
bronze, and these have acquired a 
rich green patina over time. Those 
made of iron, however, have rusted 
and decayed, just as the locks used 
by the Romans have virtually 
disappeared. 



16 



14 





15 



22 Medieval European 
14th- 15th century 
iron, 13.3 cm 
1910. 10.5 



23 Medieval European 
I4th-i5th century 
iron, 31cm 
1976. 1. 116 



24 Medieval European 
I4th-i5th century 
bronze, 6.7 cm 
1910.10.6 





16 



25 Medieval European 
I4th-i5th century 
iron, 8 cm 
1910.10.8 




The technology of lock and key 
design did not change dramatically 
from the Roman period until the 
Middle Ages, when significant 
innovations began to make their 
mark. Most keys of the medieval 
period are made of iron, although 
the use of bronze did not disappear 
entirely. One of the most easily 
recognized characteristics of 
so-called Gothic keys is the 
emphasis given to the design of the 
bit. Not only did the bits of medieval 
keys tend to be large, but they were 
often cut in ornamental patterns, 







such as Latin crosses. The bits of 
some medieval keys have teeth, but 
these were most often used to turn 
the lock rather than to lift prongs 
inside the lock, as was the case in 
older locks. 

The bows of medieval keys 
were the focus of much of their 
ornamentation; shapes such as 
circles, diamonds, or lozenges often 
appear on keys of this period. The 
shafts of most medieval keys are 
round, and made of solid metal. 
Although a large number of them 
are as small as their Roman 
predecessors (between five and 
twelve centimeters), there are many 
examples of outsized keys that range 
between fifteen and twenty-five 
centimeters in length. These 
imposing instruments were visible 
symbols of power and prestige for 
their owners or users and certainly 
safer from inadvertent loss than 
their smaller cousins. 






17 



26 chest lock 

possibly German 
possibly 16th century 
iron, 32 cm 
1952. 161. 140a, b 



27 French 

i6th-i7th century 
iron, 17.5 cm 
1909.27.4 



"Venetian" 
i6th-i7th century 
iron, 11. 5 cm 
1909.2.243 



probably French 
i6th-i7th century 
steel, 8.9 cm 
1952. 161. 13 




26 



Another distinguishing feature of 
keys from the Middle Ages is their 
long "nose," which is the section 
of the shaft that extends beyond the 
bit. During subsequent periods, 
this nose was used to open the 
hidden covers of the keyhole. These 
simple and sturdy keys sometimes 
accompanied elaborately 
ornamented locks. The influence 
of the church is also noticeable 
in the designs of many locks, both 
ecclesiastical and domestic; one in 
the Museum collection, a later 
example in the medieval style, 
is made with a cover plate that 
depicts a series of saints or religious 
figures arranged within a complex 
architectural setting. 



18 




Ornamental lock designs continued 
to be produced well after the late 
Gothic period. The Cooper-Hewitt 
collection contains an axe-shaped 
lock, the relatively simple 
mechanism of which is disguised by 
a lively ornamentation of flowers 
and tendrils. The heads of the metal 
pins that hold the lock together 
are made as blossoms, and paired 
spiral tendrils impart an energetic 
movement to the surface design. 




Another late medieval stylistic 
development came with the 
enrichment of the bow to include 
delicate tracery that echoed 
the pattern of rose windows in 
Gothic cathedrals. This "rosette" 
or "Venetian" style bow was most 
frequently fabricated from small 
sections of metal soldered in place to 
create snowflake-like patterns. The 
number and complexity of these 
patterns varied greatly, but nearly all 
were symmetrical. Many of the 
bows included a supplementary ring 
at the top, presumably to facilitate 
tying the key on a string or attaching 
it to a chain. 




19 




One of the later medieval keys in 
the Museum's collection is notable 
for a special refinement in the 
rosette motif This key retains the 
typical rounded rosette bow, but 
with two rosette panels enclosing 
a space. In addition, there is a 
relatively large "crown" on the 
top of the bow. These design details, 
often referred to as "cockscombs," 
are common among fifteenth- and 
sixteenth-century French keys. In 
later decades, the ornamental 



30 German 
17th century 
iron, 8.8 cm 
1909.2.252 




31 German 
16th century 
iron, 16.7 cm 
1952. 161. 162 



32 French 

late 18th century 
bronze and 
gilt bronze, 6 cm 
1910.1.3 



33 French or English 
18th century 
steel and brass, 7.7 cm 
1909.2.260 





34 French 

17th century 
steel, 1 1 . 5 cm 
1952. 161. 7 



35 French 

17th century 
steel, 11. 7 cm 
1952. 161. 114 



36 



French 
18th century 
steel, 11. 2 cm 
1952. 161. 2 



cockscomb grew in size and 
importance in the design, reaching 
its zenith in the seventeenth century 
when it was featured as a prominent 
element of "masterpiece" keys 
created by apprentices to prove 
their qualifications to become 
master locksmiths. 

During the Renaissance, key designs 
were introduced that incorporated 
new ornamentation, including 
elegant and refined scrollwork 
fabricated of iron and soldered with 
copper. The shafts of many of these 
keys are hollow, made of a sheet of 



metal rolled into a tube. The shape of 
the bit is often a clue to the purpose 
of keys in this period; for example, 
bits with lower edges cut into 
complex patterns were frequently 
used for padlocks. In contrast, keys 
with solid-edged bits were most 
likely used for chests and other 
lockable furniture. 






37 probably French 
18th century 
steel, 13.5 cm 
1952. 161.23 



38 French 

17th century 
steel, 14.3 cm 
1917. 10.2 



39 probably French 
18th century 
steel, 12.7 cm 
1952. 161. 3 



40 possibly French 
17th- 18th century 
iron or steel, n. 4 cm 
1909.2.240 



Differences in key design from 
one country to the next become 
increasingly apparent from the 
sixteenth and seventeenth century 
onward. Bits cut in complicated, 
symmetrical patterns were typical 
of German key design, as were 
rounded or kidney-shaped bows, 
and those in the form of trefoils. 





French keys sometimes incorporated 
the fleur-de-lis in their design, 
and French artisans also often 
included refined openwork passages 
that suggest the delicacy of lace. 
Although the keys from this period 
in the Museum's collection show the 
bow designs to be relatively simple, 
sixteenth- and seventeenth- century 
engravers offered a wide and 
sometimes bewildering variety 




Richard de Lalonde 

(active 1780-96) 

France 

Two Designs for 

Gilt Bronze Key Plates 

c. 1780 

study for plate 5 

XXVme Cahier 

d'Oeuvres Diverses 

(Paris: c. 1780) 

pen and black ink 

black and gray wash 

1911.28.187 



of ornamental patterns that circulated 
throughout Europe by way of 
printed design books. Many of these 
patterns for keys are documented in 
the Museum collection. 

The seventeenth century also saw 
a great increase in figural 
ornamentation on keys, with special 
emphasis given to animal motifs. 
The Museum's collection includes a 
number of keys with bows in the 
form of addorsed dolphins or 
mythological creatures. While some 
of these animals may be armorial in 
purpose, a number of designs 



were purely ornamental. Personal 
ownership of keys by the aristocracy 
was often indicated through the 
incorporation of initials into 
the design of the bow of the key or 
by using family coats of arms as the 
central decoration. During the 
seventeenth century, most heraldic 
devices were carved in the bow 
rather than cast in relief, although 
variations are well documented. 



41 



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23 




4 2 The majority of the Cooper- 
Hewitt's keys from the seventeenth 
century are assumed to be personal 
keys, although a number clearly 
had official uses. One German key, 
for example, is ornamented with 
a cross within its bow and was most 
likely used in a church or chapel. 
Bits on such keys may be highly 
complex or quite simple. Some of 
the simpler cuts take on the form of 
stars, and some keys use a repeated 
star pattern. Another variation in 
the form of the bit is the "screw" 
bit, which resembles a corkscrew. 
This type of key, generally reserved 
for use with padlocks, remained in 
vogue for several centuries. 

Some keys from the seventeenth 
century display innovative designs, 
such as a double key with a sliding 
hollow bow that can be moved 
from one end of the key to another 
to create a handle for opening the 
lock. The delicacy of key-making 
is revealed in the finely cut bits 
characteristic of French workmanship 
of the period. On some keys the cuts 
in the bit do not interrupt the edge 
of the key itself. The finely cut 



24 



42 Mathurinjousse 
patterns for wards 
from La Fidele Ouverture 
de Van dc Semirier 
(Paris: 1627) 
engraving and etching 
1921.6.324(31) 



43 German 

17th- 18th century 
iron, 18.5 cm 
1904. 14.2 



44 French 

17th century 
steel, 14 cm 
1909.2.238 



patterns inside the bit proper indicate 
the complexity of the locks for 
which these keys were designed. 

The eighteenth century witnessed a 
dramatic increase in the number of 
keys; far more people used them on a 
daily basis than in earlier periods. 
The stylistic development of keys 
and locks was also stimulated and 
reached the zenith of aesthetic and 
ornamental sophistication. The 
Museum's collection includes 



elaborately decorated eighteenth- 
century keys used for a number of 
functions ranging from securing 
dwellings to locking valuables in 
furniture and chests. A wide variety 
of containers and boxes were also 
fitted with small locks to protect 
valuable comestibles such as tea 
and sugar. 





25 



45 German 
18th century 
iron, 14.3 cm 
1952. 161. 81 



46 German 
18th century 
steel, 8.4 cm 
1952. 161.35 



47 English 
18th century 
steel, 12.7 cm 
1952. 161. 18 



48 English 

18th century 
steel, 7 cm 
1952. 161.20 



49 English 

18th century 
steel, 8 cm 
1952. 161. 8 



50 English 
19th century 
brass, 15.3 cm 
1923. 13. 5 



51 English 

late 19th century 
brass, 13 cm 
1923. 13.6 




German locksmiths made some 
highly elaborate keys and locks in 
the eighteenth century, many of 
them having bows with scrollwork 
and foliage decoration, and star-cut 
bits. Ordinary English keys tended 
to be plain and serviceable, entirely 
functional ancestors of the so-called 
"skeleton" key with which we are all 
familiar. They stand in contrast to a 
smaller group of highly ornamental 
English keys that, like their French 
counterparts, incorporated complex 
scrollwork designs into their bows. 
Although the major focus of 
decoration remained the bow, some 
fine English keys of this period also 
show elaborate ornamentation of 
the shaft and bit. 

Increasingly, coats of arms and 
initials were incorporated into the 
design of bows during the 
eighteenth century to indicate the 
identity of the owner. Also during 
this period, the number of symbolic 
or ceremonial keys increased, 
resulting in the production of a wide 
range of impressive "chamberlain's" 
keys. From the sixteenth to the 
eighteenth century, the keys retained 
by the chamberlain at court or in an 
aristocratic residence had been 
primarily functional - it was these 
keys that assured the security of the 
family and their possessions. From 
the eighteenth century onward, 
highly ornamental keys have been 
carried as a perquisite and symbol of 
office rather than for actual use. 



26 







27 



52 chamberlain's key 
Austrian, Emperor 
Ferdinand I 
19th century 
gilt bronze, 18.2 cm 
1909.27.7 



53 chamberlain's key 
probably German 
19th century 
gilt bronze, 16.2 cm 
1909.27.6 



54 chamberlain's key 
Initials of the 
Archbishop of Cologne 
late 19th century 
gilt bronze, 14.5 cm 
1909.27.8 



55 chamberlain's key 
probably German 
i8th-i9th century 
gilt bronze, 10.7 cm 
1967.48.41 



Such keys, beautifully crafted and 
often gilded, were generally worn 
on special occasions. The Museum's 
collection contains several examples 
of such ceremonial keys, most 
with armorial devices, coats of arms, 
initials, or monograms. Some of 
the Museum's keys bear insignia 
or arms that associate them with 
European royalty. Since many 
of them show no sign of actual use 
or wear, their symbolic purpose 
is undeniable. 

Other innovations that arose 
during the eighteenth century 
included cleverly designed 
folding or collapsing keys. Such 
keys were convenient for carrying 
in a pocket, and many can be 
seen as predecessors of nineteenth- 
century "patent" keys. 

In spite of the refinements that 
occurred in lock and key design 
from the sixteenth century onward, 
most locks were highly susceptible 
to easy picking until the eighteenth 
century. During the course of that 
century, lockmakers attempted to 
provide heightened security with 
devices that would be certain to foil 
burglars and other crooks. Locks 
were considered essential for houses, 
and the growing use of lockable 




28 




furniture, the institution of banks, 
and a rise in the crime rate all 
contributed to the rapid growth of 
mass-produced keys. The increasing 
importance of functional locks and 
keys mirrored changes in population 
movements. As industrialization 




occurred, families abandoned rural 
life for the cities, and as urban 
centers mushroomed, so too did 
poverty and crime. A certain amount 
of protection for person and 
property could be provided by locks 
and keys - a development that, 
combined with an increasing reliance 
on public police protection and 
banks, serves as a commentary on 
the nature of progress during 
the eighteenth century. 




29 



56 folding key 
European 
18th century 
iron, 20.8 cm 





These developments not only 
stimulated the craft of lockmaking; 
they also engendered a climate of 
competition among inventors and 
designers to produce less easily 
picked locks. An all too familiar 
cycle was established whereby every 
time a better lock was made, thieves 
rose to the challenge and figured out 
how to pick it. Robert Barron 
invented a twin- tumbler lock in 
1778, considered by many to be the 
first major technological advance in 
lock-making. However, it was Joseph 
Bramah (1749-1814) who won 
international fame with his 1784 
patent for the "Bramah Cylindrical 
Lock." In 181 1 he went on to found 
the first lock and key manufactory to 
utilize mechanical duplication 
of standardized separate parts. 




From that date, the history of lock 
and key manufacturing changed 
radically as more and more 
competitors entered the field with 
inventions to foil thieves and 
lockpickers. 

In England, where many of the 
nineteenth-century advances in lock 
and key design were developed, the 
Chubb brothers, Charles and 
Jeremiah, achieved wealth and success 
with their 1818 patented "Detector" 
lock. The fame of the Chubbs in 
their specialized field was heightened 
by their participation in the 1851 
Crystal Palace Exhibition; at this 
landmark international trade fair, the 
Chubbs were commissioned to 
make the locked gold case in which 
Queen Victoria's famous "Koh-i- 
noor" diamond was exhibited. 
Embarrassingly, it was at this same 
exhibition that an enterprising 
American locksmith and inventor 
named Alfred C. Hobbs publicly 
picked both a Bramah and a well- 
known Chubb lock, the latter of 
which was said to be unpickable. 
Hobbs earned a large cash prize for 
his efforts. 

Hobbs's success was eventually 
overshadowed by the Yale family of 
Middletown, Connecticut. Linus 
Yale, Sr. (born in 1797), established 
himself as a lockmaker around 1840. 
His son Linus (1821-1868) turned 
the family business into one of the 
most successful nineteenth-century 
firms specializing in bank locks. 



30 



57 Oriental 

19th century 

■ 

iron, 17.5 cm 

1952. 161. 180c 



58 Oriental 
19th century 
iron, 17.5 cm 
1952. 161. 173c 




Seeking both improved security and 
a reduction in the size of locks and 
keys, the Yales revolutionized the 
history of mass-produced keys 
and locks. 

These innovations in design, the 
industrialization of the craft, and 
the large demand for locks and keys 
necessarily led to a decline in their 
individual design characteristics. 
Today it is difficult to distinguish 
keys made in different countries or 
by different firms on the basis of 
design. Stylistic issues continued to 
play a part even in industrially 
manufactured keys in the 1920s 
and 30s, however. Some keys, for 
example, were designed with bows 
that echo the stepped profile of 
skyscrapers. Nonetheless, fewer 
craftsman-designed and -fabricated 
keys have been made in the 
twentieth century. From the unique 
and carefully handcrafted creations 
that had been produced for over two 
thousand years, keys and locks have 
become internationally standardized 
and plainly designed tools. 

Despite the decline of stylistic 
innovation, the history of locks and 
keys in the past few decades has been 
even more dramatically altered by 
the introduction of new technologies 
and materials. Many security devices 
are electronically controlled and 
monitored and do not require a 
metal key at all. Hotel guests 



are now often provided with an 
electronically-coded card or plastic 
key to their rooms, rather than with 
a cumbersome tagged key intended 
to remind them to return it when 
they leave; the locking code 
programmed into such computerized 
keys requires only a reprogramming 
to provide a new security code and, 
essentially, a new key. Security 
systems have also been developed 
that need no passkey whatever - 
voice pattern recognition, 
fingerprint security systems, and 
push-button codes are now counted 
among the descendants of the 
traditional locks and keys used by 
the Egyptians, Romans, and our 
more immediate ancestors. 

Although their form and appearance 
may change radically, locks and keys 
will remain an indispensable part 
of our daily lives as long as human 
beings require security for themselves 
and their possessions. The history 
of their craftsmanship and design, in 
partnership with technology and 
innovation, is clearly recorded for 
posterity in the key and lock 
collections of the Cooper- Hewitt 
Museum. 

Dr. Bert Spilker 



3i 



Bibliography Almgren, Bertil 

Bronsnycklar Och Djuronnamentik 

Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryrckeri AB, 1955 

Canz, Sigrid 

Schliissel, Schlosser und Beschlage 

Wuppertal: Dr. Wolfgang Schwarze Verlag, 1977 

Curtil-Boyer, Charles 

L'Histoire de la clefde I'epoque romaine au XVIII siecle 

Paris: Editions Vilo, 1969 

DAllemagne, Henri Rene 

Decorative Antique Ironwork 

Paris: 1924. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1968 

Eras, J. M. Vincent 

Locks and Keys Throughout the Ages 

Dordrecht, Holland: Lips Lock Factory, 1957 

Frank, Edgar 

Old French Ironwork: The Craftsman and His Art 

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950 

Hopkins, Albert A. 
The Lure of the Lock 
New York: General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, 1928 

Lecoq, Raymond 

Serrurerie ancienne - techniques et oeuvres 

Paris : Librairie Gedalge, 1973 

Pankofer, Heinrich 
Schliissel und Schloss 
Munich : Georg Callwey, 1979 

Prochnow, Dieter 

Schonheit von Schloss Schliissel Beschlag 

Ratingen, West Germany: A. Henn Verlag, 1966 

Zara, Louis 

Locks and Keys 

New York: Walker and Co., 1969 

32 















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